Corcovado National Park: 3 days of spotting wildlife including Costa Rican puma

Corcovado National Park is hands down the best place to see wildlife in Costa Rica and to experience the tropical rainforest. As a perk, because the park has been protected since 1975 and because tourists’ visits to the park are tightly regulated, the animals in Corcovado are not as fearful of people as in most other places and will often approach you quite closely.

This post about our 3-day wildlife watching adventure in Corcovado National Park will give you a taste of what a visit to Corcovado wilderness entails. But first, some practical details:

How to get to Corcovado National Park

There are five ranger stations inside Corcovado National Park, and Sirena Station is the best among them, in the sense that it has the most facilities and an excellent network of hiking trails.

Getting to Sirena is part of the adventure. One way to reach it is by a 1-hr boat ride from Drake Bay that will be included in your tour. Expect a beach landing and a bumpy ride through the swells of the Pacific Ocean.

Another option is to hike the 20-km (6-8hrs) La Leona track from Puerto Jimenez (Carate). The trail is beautiful but it is a difficult walk, especially when you are carrying all your belongings in the humid tropical heat.

If both options sound a bit much, you can opt for a 20-min flight to Sirena Station from Drake Bay or from Puerto Jimenez.

How much does it cost to visit Corcovado National Park?

Because of its remote location on the Osa Peninsula, Corcovado can only be visited with a certified Nature Guide. There are a variety of tours available in Drake Bay and Puerto Jimenez. A popular option is a day tour to Corcovado from Drake Bay, which costs around $100 and starts at 6 am.

But to properly explore Corcovado and its diverse wildlife, I would recommend taking a 3D2N tour. There is a range of tours departing from both Drake Bay and Puerto Jimenez and they cost around $500

When is the best time to visit Corcovado?

Corcovado is closed to visitors during October – the month of the highest rainfall in Costa Rica. The rainy season lasts from May to December. To avoid most of the rains, it is best to visit Corcovado during the dry season: December to April

READ MORE: 25 Landmarks in Costa Rica to Add to Your Bucket List

A 3-Day Tour in Corcovado National Park

Our adventure started in the pre-dawn darkness as we walked from our guesthouse towards the main street of Drake Bay where Bolivar, our guide from the locally-based Surcos Tours, was waiting for us at the tourist office.

Heading to Corcovado at sunrise
Leaving Drake Bay at sunrise

We already met Bolivar at the pre-departure briefing the night before, and the very necessity of such a briefing made me realize that a visit to Corcovado is not exactly a walk in the park. We discussed the condition of the trails and the available, albeit very limited facilities at Sirena Ranger Station, calculated the necessary quantities of provisions we needed to take, and walked through the potential dangers that a visit to a remote wilderness entails.

At the briefing, I asked Bolivar what were our chances of spotting one of Corcovado’s wild cats (I saw reports of Ocelot sightings at Sirena). And Bolivar gently but firmly freed me from my delusions and concluded that the chances of spotting a wild cat were next to none.

He has never seen an ocelot in Corcovado, but in his 6 or 7 years of guiding in the park, he saw a puma on two occasions. I decided to take it as a good sign. I had a good feeling about Corcovado.

Boat ride to Corcovado from Drake Bay

When we arrived at the tourist office, we were greeted with delicious Costa Rican coffee. As we sipped the hot brew, the sky slowly began to lighten and soon a pickup truck came rattling down the road to take us for a short drive to the boat landing.

What followed was one of the wildest adventures of our entire Costa Rica trip. Perhaps naively, I imagined a fairly tranquil experience of cruising the tropical waters for just over an hour, almost like an extended whale-watching trip, but that ride is anything but. You can read about our adventures of Getting to Corcovado from Drake Bay to get an idea of just how untranquil the ride in the massive swells of the Pacific Ocean is.

Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica -corcovado beach
Corcovado beach

When we finally reached the shore of Corcovado, the three of us, and no doubt most of the other passengers felt like battle survivors. Although in the idyllic setting of Corcovado’s wilderness, the boat ride soon became a distant memory.

Arriving in Corcovado National Park

We waded out onto the beach and found a log to sit on while we waited for the boat to be unloaded. As I watched hundreds of Hermit crabs scatter away from underneath our log, I took a moment to appreciate the fact that we were finally in Corcovado.

Toucan in Corcovado

Dubbed by National Geographic as ‘the most biologically intense place on earth in terms of biodiversity’, Corcovado is epic in every sense of the way. It protects a third of the remote Osa Peninsula and encompasses the only remaining swath of old-growth wet forest on the Pacific coast of Central America.

Most importantly (for me), it is home to five species of wild cats. Jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, and jaguarundi prowl these jungles at night. This place is probably, as close to a wildlife haven, as the modern-day planet Earth has to offer.

As if to prove my point, within 20 minutes of landing on the beach, we were looking at the first endangered species of the trip. Two Baird’s tapirs were taking an afternoon nap in a shady puddle just off the trail that runs from the beach to Sirena Station.

We quietly made our way to the edge of their little swamp and sat there watching the odd-looking creatures sleep. It may not sound like much fun, but it felt incredible to be this close to the wild animals, to be so accepted into their world, especially considering that Baird’s tapirs are some of the most threatened species of wildlife in Costa Rica.

READ MORE: 50 Outstanding Safari Holidays Destinations Outside of Africa

Wildlife in Costa Rica - Baird's tapir
Baird’s tapir

Sirena Ranger Station

We entered Sirena station via the jungle airfield where a cute little 4 seater plane sat parked in the freshly mowed grass.

The Station had an idyllic appearance of a tropical research station that brought to mind images from the Jurassic Park movies, which came as no surprise since some of these movies were filmed in Costa Rica.  But behind the romantic facade, the facilities at Sirena Station were beyond rustic.

Sirena ranger station in corcovado national park, costa rica
Sirena Ranger Station

The dorms and the showers were dilapidated in the extreme. Dingy dorm rooms with colonies of ants living inside, grotty bathrooms straight out of Trainspotting. Not quite a luxury villa.

The only saving grace was the dining area and the large wrap-around veranda of the ranger’s office. I could easily imagine spending lazy evenings here, sprawled in comfortable chairs, watching animals emerge from the jungle.

But for now, we were content to have a quick cup of coffee and leave the station to explore one of the trails.

Corcovado National Park Wildlife

As soon as we stepped from the brightly-lit clearing of the station into the dim unknown of the jungle, we were engulfed in a different world that was absolutely teeming with life. A beautifully-patterned Tiger snake slithered across our path. Brilliantly colourful birds darted through the trees. Collared peccaries and White-nosed coatis scurried in the leaf litter completely unafraid.

Up in the trees, Howler monkeys and Squirrel monkeys raced across the canopy, dislodging ripe fruit that would land with a thud at our feet. It seemed like at every turn there was something or someone amazing to encounter.

White-nosed coati in Corcovado
White-nosed coati

Bolivar spotted a Northern Tamandua – Costa Rica’s largest anteater, high up in the canopy. It seemed to have too ungainly a shape for a tree-dweller, yet it moved with unexpected grace. It poked its curious face through the branches to have a better look at us.

Not to be outdone by the high flyers, a little Eyelash viper curled up on a branch by the side of the trail, perfectly camouflaged against the moss-covered bark. Apparently, she can be found there any day, frozen motionless for hours, waiting for unwary prey to approach within her striking distance.

Eyelash pit viper in Corcovado
Eyelash Pit-viper

Our second day in Corcovado National Park started with a 4.30 am hike to the Sirena River in hopes of seeing tapirs taking a dip in the ocean. According to Bolivar, that’s what tapirs do here – wade into the ocean in the early hours of the morning.

The tapirs appeared to have had an earlier swim that day, but watching the sunrise over Costa Rica’s Jurassic-like jungle was quite awe-inspiring.

Sunrise in Corcovado national park
Sunrise in Corcovado

Hike to Puma Valley

After an enormous and delicious breakfast back at the station, we set off to Puma Valley. I was desperately hoping to see a wild cat in Costa Rica and Corcovado National Park was my best chance. The aptly named Puma Valley was the place where Bolivar’s two puma sightings have occurred.

The valley lies along the 16-km La Leona track and to get to the start of the trail we had to cross a tidal creek. As we were wading through about a meter of water Ruth pointed at a rather large crocodile floating just below the surface a few meters away.

Bolivar’s “Don’t worry they don’t eat people” dismissal of the croc, did not inspire too much confidence. I guess, after living in Australia for a few years you develop a healthy scepticism towards what crocodiles do or do not eat.

Beach in Puma valley
Beach in Puma Valley

Costa Rican Puma in Corcovado

The trail to Puma Valley is a spectacular hike. It is flanked by dense tropical jungle on one side and by deserted beaches and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The trail meaders in and out of the jungle onto the beaches and then back into the jungle again. If I was a wild cat, I would’ve been very happy to live here.

On one particularly picturesque beach, we were gobsmacked to see feline paw prints on the sand. Two separate sets: a mother and her young. The prints were quite fresh. I had goosebumps of excitement running down my spine as I realised that we were entering a puma’s domain.

As we stepped back into the jungle from the beach, Bolivar grabbed my arm and none too gently pulled me down into a crouch, pointing into the thickets. I looked in the direction he was pointing and met an intent stare of a puma.

Corcovado animals - Puma in Corcovado National Park
Puma in Corcovado

It was no further than 4 or 5 meters in front of us. Unable to speak or even breathe from excitement, the four of us froze where we were, too afraid that the cat would dash away.

She didn’t. She just stood there calmly watching us watching her. And after a while, another little face poked through the undergrowth – a cub!

Puma cub in Corcovado National Park
One of the cubs

They kept watching us for a few minutes and then started walking away. Bolivar whispered for us to stay put. There was a swamp behind the pumas and the only way for them to continue on their journey was to walk around it, right across our field of view.

He was right. And as the cats emerged from the undergrowth we noticed the second cub. The trio slowly walked around the swamp and disappeared into the thick undergrowth leaving us speechless for a few minutes.

Costa Rican pumas in Corcovado
Puma with one of the cubs

I have chased enough cats in the wild to appreciate just how rare a sighting this was. When we returned to Sirena and Bolivar shared the news with the station rangers, they wouldn’t believe him until he presented photographic evidence.

Later in the afternoon, a group of 3 antipoaching patrol rangers walked into Sirena, rifles slung over their shoulders. These men spend 3 weeks in the field, in parts of the park that can only be accessed on foot. They sleep under the stars and see more wildlife than anyone else in Corcovado.

Bolivar had to present our photographs to these rangers as well, in order for them to believe him. I asked him to find out what cat species these rangers encounter during their patrols in the jungle, and he came back with two reports of Ocelot sightings (over a few years) and of a couple of puma sightings. Cats seem to be as elusive in Corcovado as they are in most other places where they occur.

More Corcovado wildlife

The rest of our stay in Corcovado paled in comparison to seeing pumas but was still quite incredible.

The following day we returned to Puma Valley but didn’t see the cats, of course. But we did find some Baird’s tapirs snoozing in a shady puddle and at one point, a huge group of White-nosed coatis surrounded us on the trail. They completely ignored us as they dug around in the leaf litter looking for buried fungi virtually next to our feet.

Before we left the valley we picked up another couple of mammals: a Red Brocket deer and a Red-tailed squirrel, as well as a very impressive Pale-billed woodpecker. 

Apart from the cats, another animal I wanted to see was a Tent-making bat. This curious bat builds its own home by biting the central vein of a large banana leaf until it folds in half, forming a V-shaped shelter that protects the bat from the sun and the rain. Bolivar found one near the creek, roosting underneath a large Heliconia leaf.

Back at the field centre, a troop of Spider monkeys and Squirrel monkeys spent the afternoon squabbling in the low branches, birds of prey actively hunted large insects and Collared peccaries browsed on the grassy lawns. It was like living inside the Costa Rican edition of the Jungle Book.

Fer de Lance

The one thing we kept missing in Costa Rica was Central America’s most infamous venomous snake – Fer de Lance. This snake is responsible for most snakebite-related deaths in the region. So when the chance to see one presented itself, we jumped to it.

It was the morning of our departure and we were lazing around at the station drinking some much-missed coffee. Suddenly, Bolivar came up brimming with excitement and a sense of urgency. One of the other guides told him that his group just spotted a Fer de Lance about a kilometre up one of the trails. And he offered to take us to the spot.

In a flurry of excitement, our coffee was completely forgotten and we took off at a trot after the guide. The trail was so muddy that the flip-flops we happened to be wearing were more of a hindrance than anything else, so we ended up carrying them in our hands instead.

This is what wildlife watching holidays are all about for me – running barefoot along a muddy jungle trail to see a venomous snake!

Fer de lance in Corcovado
Exceptionally well camouflaged Fer de lance

The viper, one of the most dangerous animals in Costa Rica, was curled up on the jungle floor barely distinguishable from the leaf litter. It would take real skill to spot it before stepping on it.

No wonder the guide volunteered to take us, rather than explain to us where the snake was. He obviously didn’t want to contribute to the count of unaccompanied foreign tourists that perished at Corcovado.

To finish our adventure we were treated to a monsoonal downpour on the boat ride back to Drake Bay. Over an hour under torrential rain, all the while thinking that we had our rain jackets packed too deep in our bags, which were stashed out of reach in the stern section of the boat.

caught in the rain on a boat in Costa Rica
Remember to keep a rain jacket handy at all times!

Verdict on Surcos Tours

So what’s the verdict on visiting Corcovado for 3 days with Surcos Tours? It was an exceptional experience. The best adventure of our Costa Rica trip.

Bolivar was a fantastic guide and without his help, we would not have spotted half of the animals we’ve seen. And while the wildlife is very approachable, you could even say tame, in Corcovado, we never approached the animals too closely. Unless they came to us themselves. We also made sure to leave no traces of our visit to the park’s trails and took all our rubbish back with us.

Here is our species list for Corcovado National Park.

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20 thoughts on “Corcovado National Park: 3 days of spotting wildlife including Costa Rican puma”

  1. This is amazing, Margarita! Corcovado is so rich in wildlife. The collared peccary is nothing like anything I have seen before. Love its little crown! I enjoyed reading your post :)

  2. What an incredible experience!! I visited Corcovado National Park a couple of years ago and we spotted an incredible amount of wildlife too, but not pumas, or a jaguar (which would have been incredible!). We did see a baby Ocelot though, and over 100 different bird species. It was a truly incredible trip! Your post has me wanting to go back!

    • A baby Ocelot!? This sounds incredible! I read one report of an Ocelot sighting at the airfield at Sirena Station. While we were there, we bumped into some rangers at Sirena (they spend 21 days in the forest on a single shift) and they said they almost never see Ocelots. Where about did you spot yours?

  3. This is just amazing! Corcovado was on our planned itinerary for Central America, but eventually, we changed our plans and didn’t visit Costa Rica! I still want to go there and this National Park is on our wish list… Seeing wild cats would be such a big treat, but I wouldn’t be to eager to encounter all the creepy crawlies (read: spiders!)! You captured the cubs and the other wildlife so well! Love your pictures!

    • Thank you, Inge! I found that there weren’t many bugs in Costa Rica, apart from the mosquitos in some parts. Corcovado is absolutely incredible for wildlife. Hopefully, they’ll upgrade the facilities at Sirena Station sometime soon. They were a bit rough :)

  4. Oh my gosh you saw so many amazing animals ? Wildlife spotting is my ultimate favourite thing to do and to be honest, I’ve never thought about visiting Costa Rica to do so! Thank you for sharing XX

    • Costa Rica is amazing for wildlife, Kate. You would love it if you enjoy wildlife spotting. It is such a small country and there is so much packed into that small area – it’s absolutely incredible.

  5. A friend and I are trying to plan a trip to Costa Rica right now, and I hadn’t seen this park listed on alot of itineraries, but I definitely want to see if we can squeeze it in now!

    • It’s a bit of a hidden gem because it is so remote. It is absolutely worth all the trouble getting to it if you enjoy seeing wildlife in its natural habitat.

  6. Great post and amazing photos. Made me want to go to Costa Rica immediately. Not sure that I want to wade in a tidal stream with a crocodile, though.

  7. Holy Corcovado looks like an amazing adventure! I’m not a fan of boats and your boat ride sounds somewhat terrifying (and entertaining when you relay it back!) so guess it will be an all day hike in for me … I think it would be worth it for the incredible wildlife, the pumas look absolutely stunning and I’d love to see tapirs too.

  8. One of the best places I’ve visited in Costa Rica so long ago (and took me ages to get there). It’s just a hidden gem that not too many people make the effort to visit, which is a shame. You were lucky – lots of great photos of the animals! Wonderful post!

    • Thank you, Maya. Yes, the puma encounter was incredibly lucky. But a lot of other species are quite easy to see in Corcovado. It is definitely my favourite wildlife watching spot in Costa Rica


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